Minimalism and Meaning
The Path Through My Garden
The Minimalist path enables us to clarify our definitions of ourselves. Any number of posts are out there in the minimalist blogging world that more or less say the same thing, but the point I want to make in this particular post is that once minimalism and simplicity in life itself becomes natural, it can possibly have an effect on semantics, creating changes in the meanings of words themselves, and changes in the way we use them.
This is the time of year I like to goof off, because the weather is warm, it’s my birthday, it’s the Fourth of July holiday, and because for many years I didn’t have the luxury of being able to do so. This past week, however, also brought a lot of different elements together at the same time, revealing something that I hadn’t noticed before. It happened while updating my resume.
Now, I’ve always considered my working history to be a bit of a mish-mash. Circumstances dictated that I become an entrepreneur, a process that often begins with asking oneself, “What do I enjoy doing and what do I know how to do that others would pay me for?” The actual experience of setting up and running businesses, none of which made a solid living even when they were successful, left me feeling as if I had very little to show for all the work I’d put into it.
A resume was needed for a writing-related job I was interested in, so I unearthed the most recent one lurking in the depths of my hard drive in order to update it. I haven’t looked at it in a couple of years, and a lot has happened since then. It was longer than I remembered it, and would be even longer when updated; a cluttered resume, in essence. Without a moment’s hesitation, I pared away distracting details, pulled together some of the headings, and suddenly saw a theme emerging, one that strongly illustrated a coherent, cohesive working life, and not the mish-mash I had resigned myself to believe it was.
I now had a document–and a truthful one–that showed a respectable set of accomplishments for a self-employed writer and artist. And I felt that bell-ringing sense of clarity one gets when something really, truly resonates. Hey, it was almost like fireworks! Being a writer and an artist wasn’t what I was hoping to be some day–it’s what I had been, all along, but with perhaps a definition or shape that I hadn’t visualized–or had the freedom to articulate–when I first started out in life.
If we, as human beings, can be about more than a single definition of a word, then the meanings of the words we choose to describe ourselves are far deeper, as well. For some of us, it is difficult to find the words that express what we’re all about, perhaps because we grew up around people with a very restrictive notion of what such words could mean. This leaves us feeling like Alice in Wonderland, during her conversation with the Caterpillar:
`Who are YOU?’ said the Caterpillar.
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, `I–I hardly know, sir, just at present– at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’
`What do you mean by that?’ said the Caterpillar sternly. `Explain yourself!’
`I can’t explain MYSELF, I’m afraid, sir’ said Alice, `because I’m not myself, you see.’
`I don’t see,’ said the Caterpillar.
Alice knew all along what she meant, but could not find a way to bridge the gap between what she knew and what the rigidly-thinking Caterpillar would understand–her perception of being in the world had changed. In a world defined restrictively, it is not difficult to grow up and feel you haven’t become what you intended, because you are trying to fit yourself inside a pre-existing definition of your work instead of redefining the nature of your work to fit yourself.
Semantics is a complicated field of study; many distinguished linguists have made it their life’s work to explore the meaning of the meaning of words, of their genetic, cultural, and experiential origins. Writer meant something much different to me when I was in school than it does now that I write all the time; so does artist. The experience of doing this work for 35 years meant that I created my own definition of the work, certainly. But it is only with the new habit of paring away the unneeded that I can see and use the definition with full understanding and intent. This means that, while I could say that I’ve been an artist and a writer all along, it wasn’t until now that I had a clue as to what I actually meant by that, and perhaps enough to explain it to the Caterpillars of the world.